Ayahuasca, the (Grand)Mother of All Plant Medicines
A deep dive into the mysterious jungle medicine
This past weekend, I sat with Ayahuasca for the first time in over a year.
It’s the plant medicine that has had by far the biggest impact on my life. A plant medicine that’s revered by many and feared by most who haven’t tried it. It’s extremely potent and at times unpredictable. It makes you purge. It interacts with medications. It’s not a recreational experience.
If you’ve been following my work for a while, you know I’ve written quite a bit about this medicine, but I’ve never dedicated a full article to it. So today, I’d like to invite you into the world of Ayahuasca. Whether you’re completely new to the topic or have some familiarity, I’m hoping my words will educate and inspire you.
I have so much awe and wonder for this medicine, and while I don’t think everyone is meant to drink it, I think everyone should at least know about it. The fact that something like this even exists is magical on its own.
All You Need To Know About the Mysterious Jungle Brew from the Amazon
Let’s start with what Ayahuasca actually is.
Ayahuasca is a plant (Banisteriopsis caapi), but the psychoactive brew that we refer to when we talk about it is actually a combination of two plants.
More specifically, the Ayahuasca brew is made from the Ayahuasca vine and the Chacruna bush, which grow in the Amazon and are most commonly found in Peru, Brazil, and Colombia. There’s a rich history of ceremonial use in these regions, where shamans have used the brew to treat a various mental and physical ailments for millennia.
The first mystery about Ayahuasca is how it was discovered. The Ayahuasca vine is what gives this medicine the plant spirit, but it’s actually the chacruna that contains the DMT and makes it a psychedelic experience. However, consumed individually, these plants are not psychoactive. That’s because enzymes in your mouth break down the DMT in the chacruna before you can digest it. The Ayahuasca vine, however, contains monoamine oxidase inhibitors (MAOIs) which prevent this from happening. There are 80,000 plant species in the Amazon. How did the indigenous people know to combine these two? (The answer is fascinating but a story for another time.)
My shamans also like to add Syrian Rue to the brew, another non-psychoactive plant with a strong, masculine spirit that deepens and extends the journey. Ayahuasca is typically a six-hour experience, but I’ve had nights with Rue that lasted 10 hours plus.
Among shamans and aficionados, Ayahuasca is widely referred to as “the medicine”. Nobody that “sat with the medicine” (insider speak for drinking Ayahuasca), calls it by its actual name. This may feel weird, but once you experience it, you’ll understand.
It is medicine.
More specifically, medicine for the soul.
How Ayahuasca Works
The scientific answer to how Ayahuasca works is that the unique combination of these two plants supplies the naturally occurring psychedelic compound DMT to your brain, which substantially alters your perception. We know very little yet about how DMT exactly works. But in addition to causing hallucinations, out-of-body experiences, and euphoria, it decreases activity in your Default Mode Network (DFM), which is the part of your brain that houses your “ego”.
The spiritual answer to how Ayahuasca works is that it scans your soul and brings up whatever needs healing most urgently. It’s a concentrated drop of nature that helps you uncover the wisdom you hold within to find healing. While you always come to the plant with an intention, Ayahuasca heals by priority. The medicine scans your subconscious and brings up whatever is most critical for you to face, whether that’s what you had in mind or not.
People who journey with Ayahuasca commonly experience a “feminine” or “mother-like” energy, which is where she gets the name “Mother” or “Grandmother Ayahuasca” from.
Ceremonies are known for the “purge”, which rather than a side effect is a core part of the experience. It may come in different shapes and forms: crying, yawning, shaking, screaming, digestive cleansing, and yes — throwing up.
The purge is the medicine. The purge is what allows Ayahuasca to move stuck energy, which is the root cause at the core of many of our ailments and usually a result of trauma.
Many people don’t want to drink Ayahuasca because they don’t like throwing up, but believe me, if you have the opportunity to release something you’ve been carrying around for years or decades (often subconsciously), you’ll welcome the opportunity to finally get rid of it. It’s an unmatched relief that most people report feels incredibly freeing.
Mother Ayahuasca may teach you her lessons through vision, speech, knowing, or feeling. You’ll usually sit in not one but multiple ceremonies in a row (most commonly in the jungle 4 over the course of 7 days, or 5–6 over 8–10 days; underground ceremonies in the US often happen over the weekend with at least 2 ceremonies in a row). Unlike other psychedelics, it can take time for the medicine “to get to know you” and do its work, which is why a single ceremony is less helpful especially for those who are new to the medicine.
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Key Characteristics of the Ayahuasca Experience
While I’d love to walk you through archetypical experiences, it’s truly impossible because the variety of experiences one may have during an Ayahuasca journey is unparalleled.
My first few ceremonies were purely emotional with no visions whatsoever, only later I entered the world of snakes and sacred geometry that this plant is known for. I’ve also had ceremonies without visions or emotions during which I simply had a direct dialogue with the plant spirit. No two journeys are alike.
Some themes that are common, however, are inner child and trauma healing, unity with nature and the universe, and mind-body-soul consciousness. Let’s talk a bit about each, and I’ll share some examples from my ceremonies to provide color.
Inner child & trauma healing
Ayahuasca scans your subconscious for the root cause of your suffering. This root cause is usually trauma. Often (but not always), it occurred in early childhood.
There are three main mechanisms through which Ayahuasca heals trauma: awareness, purging, and rewiring.
Step 1: Awareness
Ayahuasca can bring experiences into your conscious awareness that your psyche deemed too painful to hold in its consciousness and repressed. This shift in awareness alone is sometimes enough to heal a wound.
You may think “but if something horrible happened, isn’t it better that I don’t remember? Why would I want to relive it?”
Because “until you make the unconscious conscious, it will rule your life and you will call it fate”, as Carl G. Jung famously said.
While re-experiencing trauma may sound frightening, it’s a necessary step to true healing. You need to relive your experience with positive associations so that it’s no longer an open wound but a scar that doesn’t hurt but simply tells a story.
For example, when I relived an experience of sexual abuse I saw the event happening in front of my eyes during ceremony, and it was the most healing experience. All the shame and judgment were gone as I saw and felt my body buzzing with love and acceptance for myself and my abuser. After that ceremony, my PTSD was gone.
Step 2: Purging
Trauma is not the event itself but what you take away from it. There are many layers to it, but the most relevant ones here are limiting beliefs and emotions.
For example, when a caretaker abuses a child, the child will take on a belief about itself that protects the caretaker it’s so reliant on (I am not good enough, something is wrong with me, I deserve pain, and so on).
Emotions stemming from trauma are most commonly shame, fear, neglect, and anger. There are more but these are the most prominent ones. Unless you process them at the moment the trauma happens (which most people don’t, plus, as a kid you often don’t have the emotional coping skills to do so yet), they become stuck. The energetic charge of the emotion doesn’t go anywhere, it stays in your system and eventually manifests as destructive coping mechanisms, mental and even physical illness.
That’s why you need the purge, which helps you let go of the limiting belief and surrounding emotions that resulted from the trauma.
For example, I had things happen in my childhood that left me with the belief that something was wrong with me, that I was broken. After Ayahuasca brought the events that elicited these beliefs into awareness, I cried an entire night during ceremony to mourn what happened in a way that I wasn’t able to as a child. I arose the next day a thousand pounds lighter and never found myself suicidal again.
Step 3: Rewiring
Once you’ve processed the emotions and released the false beliefs that at the time protected you but are no longer necessary, they need to be replaced.
This is where the final step comes in.
Once Ayahuasca has helped you purge, she will often follow with an experience of the complete opposite. Those can be the most blissful moments in ceremony and while they proportionally usually make up a smaller share of the time (at least for me), they are also the moments that are most memorable and stick with you.
It’s important to note that these three steps don’t necessarily happen sequentially. For example, the experience I shared above about witnessing my sexual abuse was reliving and rewiring at the same time (“there’s no shame to carry, only love and acceptance”).
Another example would be a ceremony where I healed the (subconscious) belief that I’m not capable of love because I wasn’t able to reciprocate a very specific type of parental love in childhood. To remind me of my capacity for love, Ayahuasca used the guide that had helped me through the discomfort of my journey by creating an experience where I was showering him with love for the rest of the night. My entire body was brimming, it was pure ecstasy. I walked away from that ceremony with a full heart, an unconditional capacity to give, and clarity around my love languages.
Unity with nature and the universe
The experience of unity and oneness is another common lesson Ayahuasca teaches.
It may show up in different ways. You may experience ego dissolution and viscerally marinate in unity consciousness. You may experience the consciousness of different plants or animals. You may connect with other humans by experiencing the consciousness of family members, ancestors, friends, or loved ones. It’s very common to feel the emotions of the people you are journeying with during your ceremony.
Some shades of this experience that I had include:
Ayahuasca turned me into the burning Amazon forest to communicate the urgency around climate action
Ayahuasca helped me connect to the inner children of loved ones and showed me what they were struggling with
Ayahuasca taught me that love is the fabric of the universe and filled my void by pouring love from the stars in the sky above me into my own heart
This last one is, to a certain extent, the continuation of healing trauma. Simply put, Ayahuasca can show you how emotional wounds manifest into physical ailments.
One way this can show up is through surgery during ceremony. Yes, you read right. Sometimes, Ayahuasca performs surgery on you and you’ll physically feel it happen. I’ve had surgery on my stomach / gut and on my heart. I’ve also heard about people with depression having surgery on their brains. My friend had small fantasy figures with tools in their hands show up to work on a specific part of the body. It sounds odd but it’s not uncommon.
Similarly, the medicine often works with your physical body, creating a visceral or visual experience in the areas of your body where emotions are trapped.
For example, this weekend the medicine showed me that a physical ailment I’ve been struggling with (fungal overgrowth in my gut that caused cravings, fatigue, and brain fog) was the direct manifestation of a specific fear. I traveled into my gut as I was purging the fear and Ayahausca showed me how it had manifested.
Life After Drinking Ayahuasca
The magic about Ayahuasca is that the benefits from ceremony not only last but often compound with time. The weeks after are a potent time to make changes. For example, I stopped drinking alcohol and smoking cigarettes after my first retreat, which was not only somewhat unintentional (aka I didn’t plan on it) but also nearly effortless.
Insights may trickle in weeks after the actual ceremony. People report a strong “afterglow” coming out of the experience, which can last for weeks, months, or sometimes even years. Over 70% of people who drank Ayahuasca report having an ongoing relationship with the plant.
For some people, all they need is one retreat and they’re changed for the rest of their lives. Their anxiety, depression, or PTSD is gone.
For others, it’s necessary to return to the medicine more frequently, which is often the case for those that have more trauma or struggle with issues such as addiction.
What I’ve seen most typically is that people will do a few retreats over the course of a few months/years to find healing from their ailments, and then they return every once in a while to maintain it. For example, after healing PMDD, depression, PTSD and my eating disorder with 5 retreats over the course of 18 months, I now do a retreat once a year for spiritual maintenance, so to say.
Whichever group you fall into, one thing is for sure: It’s hard to come out of the experience and not take away some type of lasting change. Not impossible, but hard.
The more seriously you take your integration, the more you can expect results to last.
Curious to learn more about Ayahuasca? Comment your questions and I’d be happy to go into more detail and demystify whereever I can.
If you’re looking to learn more about Ayahuasca, here are some resources:
The Reality of Truth, the documentary that prompted me to book my first retreat
When Plants Dream, an excellent read about the culture and history surrounding Ayahuasca
This article if you want to learn more about my journey with Ayahuasca and how it specifically helped me heal and changed my life
Hello, I'm in California and am very interested in ayahuasca. I've read up on it for the past 7 years but was never quite in a place where I was ready...as I feel I'm close to being. Please let me know when I can attend a ceremony.
Thanks again, Julia, for your caring openness. Have been seriously thinking about exploring with the mother plant. Can you recommend any reputable guides/shamans that can administer the medicine safely? Am willing/able to travel if necessary. Thanks, and bless you for all that you do.